Women to seek UN ruling on equality


In what could be a landmark case for women, three New Zealanders plan to take their Government to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, alleging that its failure to provide equality for women in Parliament breaches international conventions.

The three, who include a former MP, Dr Marilyn Waring, will use the convention employed by Australian gay activists in their recent case against Tasmania’s homosexuality laws. Dr Waring said the result could see any government that had signed the convention and its protocol morally obliged “to guarantee its women citizens half of its parliamentary seats”.

Dr Waring, speaking at the Women, Power and Politics conference in Adelaide, said that if the committee found for the complainants, the issue of quotas for women in Parliament would be irrelevant.

“Equality is not a 20 per cent quota or a 35 per cent quota; equality is 50 per cent,” she said.

Australia has signed both the conventions on which the case is based – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – and the optional protocol that allows citizens to take grievances to the UN committee.

The New Zealanders intend to ask it to rule on whether a new, expanded definition of equality established in Canada’s Supreme Court applies to UN conventions. Traditionally, the law has defined equality using Aristotelian principles: people are equal if they have equal rights and opportunities. In the Canadian decision, the Andrews case, it was decided to abandon the question of whether people had a chance to be equal and examine whether they actually were.

Under this principle, for example, it could be argued that women’s equal rights to govern would consist not merely of the right to stand for Parliament, but the right to be represented in Parliament in equal numbers to men.

Dr Waring said: “We discreetly and informally inquired initially as to whether the UN Human Rights Committee would be interested in a test case that suggests that inequality, in terms of the UN’s human rights instruments, should be interpreted in the way the Andrews case interpreted inequality, and we have had an affirmative answer.”
She said the petitioners’ legal advisers thought they had an interesting case. “They’re delighted to help, and everyone is doing it for nothing.”

First published in The Age.